My whole life I have been fascinated with science and medicine. For every free-choice project assigned to me from elementary to high school, I would base on anatomy or biology if I could. I may have not yet determined exactly how I would like to be a part of the medical field, but I know I am meant to participate in the world of healthcare for my career. Therefore, it was an easy decision whether or not this course would fit my interests. The title alone, “Literature, Medicine and Racism”, made me want to enroll immediately; it was a combination of words I myself have never yet put together. I was intrigued, and now that this course is nearing the end, I am beyond grateful that I have taken it. Upon looking back at how this course has shaped my growth, I have noticed that it has thoroughly opened my eyes to a vast world of medical history and literature I didn’t know existed prior. In turn, it has altered my previous, completely positive view of the medical field. I am now aware of many, but not all, of the horrors that people have endured in our history at the hands of scientists and doctors that have led to today’s medical and scientific knowledge. I once thought that the scientific progress I have learned about was built on ethical, positive events- a sharp contrast to the truth this course has taught me. I still view the medical field as something I am passionate about, but I no longer believe that it is built upon decades of positive advancements and events. The class text Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington enabled me to learn many of these historical endeavors, and its factual content was highlighted by a fictional course text, Home, by Toni Morrison.
Upon my initial reading of Medical Apartheid, my jaw dropped and my heart sank, leaving me mortified and embarrassed to have wanted to be a health professional. The book revealed a plethora of unethical and inhumane experiments conducted on minority groups that were done to aid scientists in acquiring more medical knowledge. I wondered how I could have been so blind to all that lay beneath the research progressions and medical advancements of today. For example, the passage about how scientists went about studying the effects of radioactivity on the human body described in Medical Apartheid left me in shock. Washington explains one portion of the radioactive experiments as, “…the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, added radioactive oatmeal to the menus of thirty orphans…” (Washington, 233). When these orphans died, their bodies were autopsied to study the amount of radioactivity present and to see the damage that had been caused by it. Another portion of this text that shows an example of the medical field’s horrific past is the description of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. At first, it appeared that the U.S. Public Health Service was trying to study and treat African American males with syphilis back in 1932 through this experiment. However, the truth behind the study is showed in Medical Apartheid as Washington quotes a PHS physician Dr. Murrell: “’Those that are treated are only half cured…. Perhaps here, in conjunction with tuberculosis, will be the end of the negro problem’” (Washington, 160). It can be seen that the study was not an act of aid, but an act of manipulation and unethical treatment rooted in racism. The core classes I have taken as a science major have turned a blind eye to its field’s negative background, such as these examples I have mentioned, and it has taken an English course to show me the truth behind the science material I learn.
When looking at the medical field at surface level, it appears to be overall successful and honest, saving people’s lives and curing many illnesses. When analyzing the overall mortality rate from all causes of death from the 1900s versus 2010, it has dropped by a staggering 54% (Tippett, 2014). Back in the 1900s, death caused by infectious diseases such as pneumonia and the flu were twelve times as likely compared to deaths reported in 2010 (Tippett, 2014). This shows great progression, but now that this course has shaped me into noticing more, I wonder, at what cost did this “success” come at? The phrase “behind every great success is a battle that has been fought” now means something entirely different to me than it did before this course. I realize now that the battle is no longer just the hard work those who experience the success go through; it may also entail the expense at which people’s lives were damaged, victimized, or manipulated to get them there.
This may seem like a purely dismal shift in perception about my once prized career goals, but in reality, the growth I have experienced has also taught me some positive things. Throughout my life and its experiences, I continuously told myself that you cannot have the good without the bad. Personally, I believe that they give meaning to one another. In this case, the horrific stories and events I have read about have shown me the gruesome side of the medical field, but they have also enlightened me to question aspects of my life I have previously taken at face value. It has shown me to dig deeper, and I am not completely discouraged from working in the medical field, but I must do my part now to prevent this terrible history from repeating. I am now aware of the many struggles and sufferings those in the past have endured to enable scientists to achieve the data they believed they needed. The scientific knowledge available today may be helpful, but as this course has shown me, a majority of it came from the exploitation of innocent patients in history.
As Washington states in Medical Apartheid, even some of the scientists themselves realized their faults eventually: “The radiation experiments capture the moment when an important group of physician-scientists ceased to view themselves as healers and benefactors first, with disastrous results for their victims and for American medicine” (Washington, 241). She goes on to state, “For African Americans, the full costs in lost health and lost trust are still being reckoned” (Washington, 241). This demonstrates that the doctors conducting these horrific experiments initially believed they were playing a positive role in people’s healthcare, and that they may have finally realized the truth of what their actions had caused. Not only was the medical world itself tainted with horrific means of experimentation, African Americans specifically were targeted and exploited through the healthcare system and as Washington stated, there are still consequences from that today.
In the text Home by Toni Morrison, one of the characters, Cee, finds herself at the hands of a doctor similar to those described in Medical Apartheid that performed serious damage to their patients. Cee worked for a man named Dr. Beau, and was led to believe that the experiments he performed on her would benefit his patients in the future. She becomes very ill due to complications from the procedures and examinations performed by him. Cee is eventually returned back home by her brother, and just in time, as she was on the verge of death. Once home, Cee recalls her experience with Dr. Beau when explaining to the women who heal her what had happened: “…how passionate he was about the value of the examinations; how she believed the blood and pain that followed was a menstrual problem- nothing made them change their minds about the medical industry” (Morrison, 122). This shows that not only did the women who helped her fear doctors, now Cee did too. She had almost lost her life due to a doctor being convinced that the procedures he performed on her would provide him with the knowledge he needed to help others. Not only did Cee almost die, she could no longer have children of her own, and this was something Cee struggled with greatly. Although these negative experiences and consequences Cee faced may be presented in a fictional text, they still highlight the reality of the medical world’s history. This fictional representation of the damages people faced at the hands of doctors they once trusted evoked just as much anger in me as the historical events presented in Medical Apartheid.
Not often do I stumble upon eye opening experiences such as this course. I find myself and the classes I take being very literal, which can push me into a more surface-level type of analysis. This course, in contrast, has helped mold me into being more thorough and to be skeptical of the information presented to me. I know ask “why?” and “how?” of all that I learn and read. This enables me to discover the underlying truths behind many of the facts presented to me that I would have never uncovered prior. Reflecting back on my growth I see that I now stray from my literal, face value ways. Although my once highly positive view of the medical field has dwindled, it is now an evidence based perspective. This shift from an evidence-lacking view on the medical field to a factually supported one has been shaped by the ideas this course has shown me. This class taught me the importance of evidence and justification. In this course, we referred to the text Reflective Writing by Kate Williams, Mary Wooliams, and Jane Spiro, when starting to form our final essays. It is stated in Reflective Writing that evidence needs to be provided in order to justify claims that one makes. Before reading this text, I hadn’t considered just how vital evidence is for all information presented, whether it is my own ideas or one I read in a science textbook. Not only has this class shown me directly that there is a vast, dark history behind the science advancements I learn about, it made me aware that I should be seeking the evidence behind these facts as it may help uncovering more of this history as well. As I look further into how an advancement in science or the medical field came about, I could discover on my own the root of the progress and whether or not it is a part of the dark history this course has shown me. This course has taught me how to actively uncover more of the history presented to me in texts like Medical Apartheid and Home on my own, and this has become the core of my growth as a student.
Throughout my studies, I could have been performing deeper analyses all along. A part of me is upset by this, knowing that the majority of my schooling has been presented to me in a sugar-coated way, speaking of only the great advances in science without the negative backstory ever surfacing. Although I may be angered, I cannot rewind the clock, so I will strive to do better in the future. I hope to take this eye-opening experience and practice it onward, noticing the truth behind the facts and read between the lines of my science textbooks. If I enter the medical field or teach of it in the future, I aspire to “practice what I preach”, and be honest about the history that precedes the medical and scientific knowledge we have today. This semester, and specifically this course, has helped shape me as a person and as a student with how I approach the scientific material I learn about.